Dear ReWorker: How Should I Handle Political Chatter in the Office?
December 17, 2018
There are some employees who are uncomfortable with the political chatter in the office. It seems to pop up everywhere—in Slack conversations, jokes at meetings and even people asking direct questions about how the company will react to whatever political event is occurring. How should HR handle this?
Tired of the Chatter
You would think once the November elections ended, we would get a break from politics until the 2020 presidential election starts heating up again, but that is never the case. So, how do you handle political chatter creeping into office conversations?
Well, first of all, unless you work for the government, your employees don't have free speech rights at the office—so, you can technically make certain topics off limits. However, before you run to do that, be aware that some states protect political beliefs—California most notably. If you reside in a state that protects politics beliefs it would be fine to say, "We are not going to discuss politics at work," but it's not fine to say, "We will only allow discussions in favor of the Republican party." Once you cross that line you violate free speech.
Before you create a blanket ban on political chatter, here are a few ideas on how to set boundaries to create an office environment that allows for healthy discussion without distracting from work.
1) Focus on the Work
The easiest way to diffuse political conversations is to remind employees that at the office, the main focus should be work. Diversions like, "Hey, let's get back to this slide deck," and, "Right now we need to be concentrating on the work not politics," can often diffuse a tense conversation.
But, that doesn't fix all the problems. You can speak directly to people who are focusing more on politics than their jobs and be quite direct: "Jane, your focus on politician X is starting to impact your work. When you're at the office, I need you to focus on your work."
If Jane is the only person talking about politics she may feel singled out, but the point is that no one would blather about a movie so much it interfered with their work. Guaranteed, people who are spending an inordinate amount of time focusing on politics aren't performing at their highest levels. If she doesn't pull it together, you can put her on a performance improvement plan.
2) Empower Managers to Talk With Their Teams
Managers should be empowered to find a solution that works best for their teams. If that means they need to shut down off-topic conversations while people should be working, let them know you will back them up. If someone complains that "Kate won't let me talk about politics because she disagrees with me," investigate. If you find out that Kate won't let anyone talk about politics, explain to the employee why that is the office policy and not related to a manger's political leaning.
3) Create a Designated Space
As for communications via Slack and email, they are generally for work purposes. But, if you want to, you can create a politics channel in Slack or a group email that people can opt into. Emphasize that disagreement is okay, but attacks are not. Managers, especially, should be aware that retaliation against employees who express different views should not be tolerated.
Now, a caution: It's super easy to think "boy this sure is an interesting discussion!" when people agree with you and at the same time think, "these people should shut up and get to work!" when you don't agree with them. So, make sure you approach the crack down on politics from a neutral standpoint. If you don't, you may find yourself criticizing people in one group more than another and that can open you up to discrimination lawsuits.
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